Traffic on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, France is well spaced and flows smoothly. One of Paris' icons, the Arc de Triomphe in the background, is the center of a huge traffic circle, the Étoile, with no lane markers and chaos galore.
Given the superb public transport system and the scarcity of parking at any cost, it is better to avoid
driving in Paris, or any other large city for that matter. Add to that the foreign iconic traffic signs,
the unpredictable behavior of European drivers, radar triggered traffic cameras, unsurpassed traffic jams, and
additional nuisances. You have better things to do on your vacation, don't you?
This entire book is published totally free on-line by the author, photographer, and webmaster, yours truly, with help from my daughter Stephanie. I welcome all questions, comments, compliments, and complaints. For contact information please see NOTE TO READERS. Updated 23 November 2015.
IN FOUR PARTS
This Internet edition of chapter 18 is divided into four parts because it is so big. The four parts are:
RENT A CAR OR TAKE THE TRAIN
I love the trains of Europe. If you are visiting the major cities of Europe there is no other rational or more pleasant way of getting from the center of one to the center of another, unless there is a big body of water between them. Then you take a ferry, another utterly enjoyable experience. For an illustrated introduction to trains and ferries see chapter 17, Trains in Europe: A Primer for Riding the Rails.
But if you are planning a trip to see the bucolic regions of a country or two, the smart way to go is the good old American way — by car. I have driven throughout much of Europe on various trips — Holland, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Ukraine, Turkey, Sweden, and at least a half dozen other countries. Having a car is certainly the best way to explore specific regions like Burgundy and Bavaria in depth. Have a plan or amble about the villages and Dorfs, stay in small country gites and Gasthauses, and dine in auberges and Stubes. If you plan some shopping you don't need to worry about carrying your purchases around. I love old and unusual junque from flea markets in Europe and can easily fill a car trunk in a few weeks with new found valuables.
It will be a trip you will never forget. But before you hit the road, get familiar with some of the differences between driving in the USA and driving in Europe. There are plenty of unfamiliar things for the first timer. Your life depends on knowing the basics. And make sure that you have good maps and/or a GPS device.
The biggest difference between driving a car in Europe and driving in the United States is that driving in Europe costs more. The price of automobiles, insurance, gasoline, maintenance, tolls, parking (when available), and violations can be two to three times higher in Europe than at home.
You will probably be renting a car if you wish to drive in Europe. There are a number of auto rental agencies. Special considerations apply in Europe. There are minimum and maximum ages for renting autos. Cars rented in one country may or may not be allowed to enter another country. If you return the car to a location other than the one where you rented it the drop-off charges may be boggling, especially if your drop-off is in another country. Plan ahead.
Almost Everything Else
Other significant differences in Europe include the types of cars in use, roads and road markings, courtesy or lack thereof, speed, and rules of the road, both official and customary.
Driving toward Cambridge, England you see the major difference when driving in the UK. You drive in the left lane in merry old England. In this image you are not allowed to turn right at the first intersection due to that round red sign with the white belt, "DO NOT ENTER — WRONG WAY" is what that means. At the second intersection you can turn right to catch the M11 motorway to London or Stansted Airport. The little yellow patch with two black symbols indicates a detour, known as a diversion in Britain. Route numbers are given but no distances. Bring your own compass.
Before you can drive in Europe you need a drivers license.
Home State Driver's License
A valid driver's license is required to operate an automobile, motorcycle, or moped in Europe. Your home state driver's license is sufficient in most countries, often up to 180 days. In some countries operation of anything other than a normal sedan requires a special license. For example, you may need a special license to ride a motorcycle in Europe.
International Driving Permit, IDP
It would be a good idea to have an IDP when driving in Europe. It is required in Italy and some other countries. Even if you do not plan to drive in Europe, I recommend an IDP. It is a handy additional piece of identification which can sometimes be left as deposit when renting a bicycle or a deck chair. You don't want to leave your passport.
The IDP is an official document. The US State Department's web site describes it thus:
Although many countries do not recognize U.S. driver's licenses, most countries accept an International Driving Permit (IDP). An IDP functions as an official translation of a U.S. driver's license into 10 foreign languages. Before departure, you can obtain an IDP at a local office of one of the two automobile associations authorized by the U.S. Department of State: AAA (American Automobile Association) [and] National Auto Club. To apply for an IDP, you must: be age 18 or over, present two passport-size photographs, and present your valid U.S. driver's license. The cost of an IDP from these organizations is less than $20.00. See the State Department web site, if they did not move the information again.
So basically all that the IDP does is translate your driver's license into a bunch of foreign languages and shows what class of vehicle you are authorized to operate. In case of language difficulty with local police the IDP will probably save you some grief. You never know when you are going to be pulled over and you never know the attitude of the cop until it happens. Your home state driver's license is still needed when driving in Europe with the International Driving Permit.
Here is the cover of an official International Driving Permit. It is a pamphlet, 4"x6" and has 18 pages. Your mug shot and vital stats are on the inside back cover. It is a rather plain looking document, black on off-white. Don't be a sucker for fancy expensive fraudulent "International Driver's Licenses."
The IDP is sold at offices of the American Automobile Association. Bring one valid driver's license, two passport photos, and $15.00 to an office of the AAA and you'll have an IDP in about ten minutes.
Most AAA offices can take your picture if you don't have extra passport photos. I suggest that you get extra passport photos and use a couple of those. You'll save money and you really don't want anybody except a police officer to see a photo taken by the AAA office.
When I had a German drivers license, I bought my IDP from the German authorities. It is basically the same piece of paper as issued in the USA.
European Driver's License
For those planning to live overseas, it is a good idea, if not a requirement, to apply for a local driver's license.
I obtained a license in Holland simply by presenting my California drivers license. As long as your home state license is valid, you can obtain a Dutch license without taking expensive lessons and a rigorous test.
Obtaining a driver's license in Germany was not as simple as in Holland. You must make application within a year of taking up residence, and take an eye examination at a regular optometrist's office. They use sophisticated instruments to check your eyes, not one of those simple wall charts. Unfortunately my test resulted in determining that I needed eye glasses. Not for me again, I decided, and talked the doctor into changing the results of the exam based on the fact that I had been partying the night before at local Fasching events and couldn't see straight yet. He bought my story and gave me an OK to drive without glasses. The technician who gave me the test was not happy. She gave me one of those looks. By the way, Fasching is a time when Germans drink and party hard. It's one of the German names for Mardi Gras, known in some countries as Carnival.
"International Driver's License"
There is no such thing as an "International Driver's License" even though you can buy one from fraudulent Internet hucksters at twice the price of a valid IDP. The AAA web site cautions:
WARNING-- International Driving Permits issued by unauthorized persons: The Department of State is aware that IDPs are being sold over the Internet and in person by persons not authorized by the Department of State pursuant to the requirements of the U.N. Convention of 1949. Moreover, many of these IDPs are being sold for large sums of money, far greater than the sum charged by entities authorized by the Department of State. Consumers experiencing problems should contact their local office of the U.S. Postal Inspector, Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Better Business Bureau, or their state or local Attorney General's Office.
Some of these lying forgers have professional looking web sites with claims of authenticity, even citing the United Nations Convention and showing images of their krap which look like very official documents. They can easily fool you. I doubt that they can fool a police officer in Europe who knows what the real McCoy looks like. Go to any office of the American Automobile Association, the AAA, and get your IDP there. Otherwise, if you want to mail your money to a PO box in Kentucky, go ahead and be a sap. By the way, I have a bridge to sell you. I don't know where it is but I'll get one if you send the money. And a further caution. Amazon.com and Google.com are promoting some of these shysters. Remember there is only one IDP and in the USA you can only get it from the AAA and the AATA.
There are a number of ways to have a car available in Europe. These are: rent one, lease one, buy a new one, buy a used one, bring one with you, or let your company provide you with one. The choice depends on the length and purpose of your trip, the weight of your wallet, or the attitude of your employer.
European vs. American Cars
European cars are different. They have nothing to compare to the standard home grown Ironmobile with ho-hum automatic transmission and swish-swash suspension.
The typical European car has a tight manual transmission, sports car type steering, and road-wise suspension. A medium size car, both in physical size and in engine performance, used to be the original Volkswagon "Beetle." Families of four traveled in what in America was considered to be a student's car. I had one, after I graduated. Best little car there was for scooting around Chicago. Even after the end of production, maybe half the cars in Europe are smaller than that little German "rollerskate with headlights," as my neighbor used to refer to my V-dub. The trend is toward bigger cars in Europe, but you'll often see the new Smart Car. The Smart Car is about half the size of anything else.
Here is the midget of cars, the Smart Car, parked in front of a drugstore in La Baule, France. There is about enough room inside for the driver and a sack of groceries. Do not forget the wine. [Photo by Stephanie.]
American cars are rare in Europe. Most American cars in Europe are owned by American servicemen. The rest belong to the well-to-do, to American businessmen, to Swedish teenagers, and to those engaged in shady businesses. They really appear out of place in the narrow streets and abbreviated parking spaces of Europe.
Auto rental and leasing agencies are located throughout Europe. Advice and assistance on renting a car in Europe are areas where a good travel agent can help. Also consult the AAA and the international car rental companies. Hertz, Avis, National, and Budget maintain offices in the major cities and in some surprising out-of-the-way places. These companies operate under their own name or affiliated company names in Europe. Call one of the majors and request a world-wide directory. These directories list agency locations, car types, rates, taxes, insurance requirements, minimum and maximum age, and other conditions. Look in the TRAVELERS YELLOW PAGES section Auto Rental in Europe for web site URL links.
These auto rental agencies have an office at the Toul, France train station.
It's possible to save money by renting from one of the local European car rental companies. Inquire at the national tourist office before departure, or at the local tourist office on arrival. European airlines are also a good source for information on local car rental agencies. And even the European railroads, recognizing their natural limitations, can help you rent a car. The French National Railroad, SNCF, promotes special combination rail/car vacation packages.
At all rental agencies, the style and price range are more varied than in America. Individual agencies rent autos ranging from the cheap and under-powered midget cars to the most expensive Mercedes Benz sedans. Some agencies specialize in Porsches and other high performance sports cars.
Major rent-a-car companies have contact information at the Copenhagen, Denmark train station. There is also a map directing you to the nearest gasoline pump of Statoil, the national oil company. When you return there is a handy key drop box right there on the wall. Out the other end of the building you can walk across the street to Tivoli Garden, one of the first and still one of the best amusement parks in Europe. The Danes know how to have fun. They also drink a lot despite the high cost of alcoholic beverages. Do not drink and drive.
Standard transmission is standard. You pay more for an automatic. Getting an automatic is not automatic. Sometimes there are none available. Air conditioning is getting to be standard, something unheard of just a few years ago. Maybe you'll want to get a car cover if you are traveling around the Mediterranean in the summer. A car cover keeps the car much cooler when parked in the sun.
This may be the first time you have rented in Europe, or the first time that you have rented a European auto with manual transmission. If so get educated in a hurry. Ask the rental agent to show you how to turn on the windshield wipers, the turn signals, the headlights, and cruise control. This is all rudimentary but these features are always different in different models. Another important point is how to get the car into reverse. Unless you are familiar with foreign cars these simple things can plunge you into frustration and evil cussing. You'll also need to know where the gas cap is located and how to open it, and location of the emergency brake, hood latch, and trunk latch.
Generally, you must be at least 21 or 25 to rent a car, and for some expensive models, 30 years old. Some companies also have maximum age limits.
This sub compact parked on a street in Paris, France rented for €5 per day in 2008, with 100 km included. A km is a kilometer, about 6/10 of a mile. The rate is quite a bit higher as of 2015 Sixti also rents in other European countries.
Renting an auto always involves insurance. The collision damage waiver, CDW, is as high or higher in Europe as it is in the USA. For a small car this can double the rental charges. When using major credit cards, this cost is usually paid by the credit card company. However, the collision cost may be covered for only a limited time, say two weeks, and may not cover any vehicle except a standard sedan. Also, some rental agencies in Europe may want to sell you the insurance so bad that they won't accept your refusal to sign off for CDW.
It would be a good idea to carefully read the policy information from your credit card company and bring along a copy stating what is covered and under what conditions. For example, my credit cards specifically do not cover CDW in Italy and Ireland. The reason is the high rate of claims in those countries. The credit card policies generaly have a limit for the length of time you can rent and they cover only sedans, no trucks or fancy stuff.
It has been reported that auto rental companies in Europe are fanatical about dings and nicks. Small stuff can turn into mountains in their eyes. The next time I rent a car in Europe I am going to take a photo of every side and the bumpers so that if I am charged for a dent I will know whether or not it was there when I rented the car, and so will they and so will my credit card company.
Prices and taxes vary between companies and countries. Special deals exist for weekends. You can get weekly or monthly rates, and rates with unlimited "mileage" (kilometers over there). Tax concessions can be had in some countries to bait you in. Look at the total cost of the car, including CDW, personal accident insurance, theft insurance, taxes, and fees. I just priced a tiny car from one of the major auto rental agencies in Holland. The "car" is quoted at $120 per week, but after adding in all that stuff in the last sentence the cost ends up at $500 for the week. Wow! A nice Mercedes will cost about $1,700 per week. Wow! Wow!
Make sure to consider the cost of that other extra when renting an auto. Gasoline is never included in the rental price. This is generally two to three times the cost in the USA, and you know how high that is.
If you have a choice in the matter it would be better to avoid renting a car in Germany and driving it to adjacent countries. The reason is that there is still some bad feeling over WW II. Even though your parents or grandparents may have helped defeat the Nazis, the people in Poland, France, and Holland only see the German auto tags. With German auto tags, I had one bad experience in Holland and a colleague had his windows wantonly busted out in France. I put a USA oval sticker on our car when we made the trip to Istanbul.
Auto Leasing, aka Buy/Sell-Back Plans
For extended travels in Europe it may be less expensive and more convenient to lease a car. Lease programs operated by Peugot, Renault, and Citroën have been doing business in France for decades. Cars can be picked up in several dozen cities in France, Belgium, Italy, Holland, and others. You receive a factory fresh new car of your choice. Leasing is practical for those wishing to have a car for at least 17 days and up to about 6 months. Students and those on short term work assignments are eligible for up to 360 days.
Renault's web site advises "Reminder: when comparing our prices to our competitors, keep in mind that the price quoted above includes: unlimited mileage, brand new car, full insurance with no deductible, multi-risk insurance in 32 countries, the exact model you order, no airport service charges, no second driver charges, minimum age 18 years with no upper limit." That is a very sweet rental policy.
How do they do that, and do that for such a low price? Technically, so to speak, the lease program is really a purchase and buy back program. You purchase and they buy back. There are tax advantages to the car company granted under French law. This allows them to keep the price much lower than traditional auto rental.
You still must buy your own gasoline and pay tolls and parking fees. Add it all up.
Auto Purchase, New Cars
European cars can be purchased through some car dealers and through specialized agencies in the United States for tourist pickup at the factory or at a dealer near your European destination. In the good old days, you could order a car for foreign delivery, pick it up on arrival, drive through Europe on vacation, and have it shipped home. This can still be done. However, the cost savings are not as great as they once were. And problems, because of the distances, become earthshaking. I know of one man who ordered a luxury German sports car for pickup, but delivery was delayed throughout his six week trip. He had to go back to Europe a couple of months later just to pick it up. And I know of another who ended up with the wrong color because he did not double-check the order. You have to really want those oval plates to go through with it.
If you are considering the purchase of a new European auto, talk to a dealer about his tourist delivery program. You might want to make this part of your European experience. Get references and speak to recent customers to see whether the deals go through smoothly or not. My experience in going to half a dozen auto agencies is that tourist delivery is something that they don't do very often and something that they are not especially interested in doing. That's what you have to watch out for. Disinterest breeds sloppy paperwork and mistakes. Purchase of a car to return it home requires a significant amount of work and hassle. You save the amount of foreign taxes which may easily be consumed by insurance and ocean freight costs. Some states will slap a sales tax on cars which have recently been purchased overseas. Off setting the expenses, you save the cost of renting a car while you are in Europe.
Having said all that, if you want the thrill of driving your new Porsche on the Autobahnen at 120 MPH go for it. European delivery is also available for Mercedes, Volvo, and other performance cars.
Besides the auto companies, a few specialized firms in Europe offer auto purchase services. Some models are available immediately. Inquire about package deals, possibly including insurance, shipping, taxes, customs, and trip planning. The Shipside company near Amsterdam's Shiphol Airport has been selling ready to drive tax-free new models of every make for 50 years. Unfortunately most of their models are European specification. Importing a European spec car to the USA is a nuisance. See the used car section below.
If you are living in Europe and decide to buy a new car, be ready for surprises. Prices of European cars vary considerably. They are almost always cheaper in the country where they are made, but are usually cheaper in America! For instance, my Porsche 911S was priced 20% higher in Holland than what I had paid for it in California, even though Holland borders Germany where the car was made. The equivalent model for sale in Holland had none of California's engine trashing pollution control equipment and did not sail half way around the world, but it did have some exorbitant "accessories" — value added tax (VAT), import duty, and a luxury tax.
Cars in dealer showrooms usually have two prices, the price before taxes and the price including VAT. VAT goes under different names in different countries. It is equivalent to a sales tax but is usually in the range of 15% to 20% and for most goods it is included in the posted price. Tax them to death is the rule in Europe, and dodge the taxes is the most rewarding game in town. In general, you can avoid VAT if you export the vehicle soon after you buy it.
Prices of American cars in Europe are really high, maybe two to three times the price at home. To save, shop in the vicinity of an American army base in Germany. Used car lots remind you of those on the outskirts of your home town.
Auto Purchase, Used Cars
Purchase of a used car in Europe is no less risky than doing the same in America. As always, it is likely that you are buying someone else's problem.
This used car dealer in Haarlem, The Netherlands parks some of his product out on the street. You will probably need an address before you can buy insurance. 'Te Koop' means 'For Sale.'
If you are buying a European model used car with the intention of shipping it back home, know that modifications are going to be required to meet American safety and pollution control requirements. The price on that Mercedes may look pretty sweet until United States Customs orders you to post bond and have it modified, or else export it or destroy it. Some autos require many more, and more expensive, changes than others. For instance, do not bring a car home that does not have DOT etched on every window. Another big nuisance would be a British car with right hand drive. You can do better. In fact you could hardly do worse. Another problem will probably be insurance. European specification autos may be more expensive to repair and consequently your insurance company may be reluctant to extend coverage. Simple things like tail light covers are often different so importing a replacemnet is very expensive and can take time.
Before shipping a used car home, contact the US Customs Service, the EPA, and the Department of Transportation to find out what officialdom will require of you, your bank account, and your vehicle. You should also contact your state motor vehicle department and local pollution control agency to see what standards the car will have to meet in order to be registered in your state.
To determine used car prices in Europe, locate a copy of a major European city newspaper and check the want ads. Large libraries and some news dealers carry these papers. You can also read the major European newspapers and their classified advertisements on the web. Most have an internet site.
Bring Your Own Car
Nobody except the POTUS would bring their own car to Europe for a short holiday. Actually, he brings two. But if you are relocating for a year or more this may be a very practical and economical thing to do. I did it on my first move to Holland. My experiences are detailed in chapter 22, Moving to Europe: Things to Know Before You Go.
I accepted a job relocation to Haarlem, The Netherlands for two years and shipped my Porsche 911S over from California. I parked the little white thing on the bank of the Spaarne River across the street from my apartment (ground floor of the corner house with the big black door) because my landlady would not rent her garage to me. Most things in Europe are negotiable, but she wouldn't budge on that garage. She needed it for her own car. She did give me exclusive use of a new washing machine in compensation. That was a good deal. If you have a car then you should rent an apartment or house with a garage if you can find one. Vandalism is a continuing nuisance throughout Europe. My Porsche was molested four times in two years, including an attempt by a group of husky Danes to roll it into the river. I gave those Vikings a word or two. We had a drink together later that night. Their favorite drink is cognac and Coke, and plenty of it.
As noted above, this Internet edition of chapter 18 is divided into four parts because it is so big. The four parts are:
NOTE TO READERS
I welcome questions and comments. If you have any concerns about your trip to Europe that have not been covered well enough in this section please do not hesitate to write and ask. When you write please include relevant details, per the folowing paragraphs.
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